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How to comfort the grieving

30 November, 1999

Charlotte Maluski gives advice on how best we can provide some comfort and support for people who are suffering a bereavement.

The first thing you can do to support those who are bereaved is to work at putting your awkward feelings aside and simply to be there for those who are grieving. In answer to the question “What can we do?” Ted Menten, in his book After Goodbye, writes, “Often the answer to a question is contained within the question itself. For instance, the question, “What can you do?” is easily answered by simply rearranging the same words – “Do what you can.” Sometimes there are easy answers, and they are very often exactly right.”

Messages of support
After suffering the loss of a son, I became involved with a bereavement group in my parish. I have learned – from my own personal experience of grief and from helping others who are bereaved that acknowledging another’s loss is very important. One of the best ways to reach out to one who is grieving is to say “I’m sorry.” These simple words, accompanied by a touch or a hug or whatever gesture you feel is appropriate, send a message of support that really helps during a time of loss.

If the bereaved want to talk, listen. You may feel that if you could find the right words, you could lift the burden of their grief, if only for a little while, thus giving them a time of peace and easing their pain. You may think that saying “I’m sorry” and just being present are inadequate. But these simple words and actions really are enough.

In their book The Art of Condolence, Leonard and Hilary Zunin describe their helplessness: “We feel so inept…No matter how much we love words, the limitations of our spoken language become glaring in the face of grief. Frustration often follows. Our hearts are so full, yet words seem so small… How awkward the silence feels. Our first tendency is often to fill them with small talk, more out of our own discomfort than for the benefit of the mourner. But the sensitive consoler soon learns that ‘what to say’ begins in the language of silence – in just being there.”

Sometimes in searching for the right thing to say, we repeat platitudes like “He’s in a better place”, “You can have another child”, etc. But there is nothing you can say that will ease the pain of the loss. Only time can do that. According to the members of Serenity, a grief support group in our parish, the platitude “I know how you feel” does not comfort or console.

Simple gestures
After you have said “I’m sorry,” you will find other ways to help a grieving person. What seems like a simple chore to you often seems like a complex project to the bereaved. Some members of my bereavement group shared some of the things they appreciated. One person returned dishes to those who had brought food; another helped address thank-you notes. A third person cooked dinner for a week after the funeral. When a young man offered to mow her lawn, Jane felt as though a boulder had been lifted from her shoulders. Elizabeth often used the expression “slaying the dragon” when she talked about returning to places that held fond memories of times shared with her husband. She was grateful when a friend offered to go to church with her. Elizabeth felt guilty when she did not attend Mass, but she found it difficult to go alone.

Several members of my group have discovered that as time passes, people often hesitate to mention the person who died. They are afraid to reopen the wound and perhaps make the bereaved feel worse. But the bereaved usually welcome the opportunity to talk about their loved ones. Judy once said, “I often feel like standing up and shouting, “Talk about them! Say their names! Remember their lives! Please!””

An excellent way to do this is to recall an incident involving yourself and the deceased. Don’t worry if it includes humour; the bereaved are relieved to find they can still laugh. Parents whose” son died several years ago recently met one of his friends. In describing the meeting, they remarked that it had been a very long time since anyone had mentioned their son to them. Their faces lit up as they talked of reminiscing with the young man about the many adventures he and their son had shared.

Avoid interference
There is usually a “Why?” connected with death. As Ted Menten writes in After Goodbye, “When we ask why someone we love has died, we are asking a series of questions that are not so easily answered. When a child asks about death, other questions are really being asked. For example, “Why did Mommy die (now)?” or “Why did Mommy die (and leave me)?” Come to think of it, isn”t that the real question we ask when a loved one dies? “Why now?” “Why me?

The bereaved have to find their own answers to those questions that have no answers. They often resent these answers coming from someone else. At a bereavement-group meeting, Mary said, “It is my pain, and in a strange way, I feel that I have earned the right to work my way through it with the loving support of my family and friends.”

As you reach out to console the bereaved, remember that you might be hurting too, and may also be asking “Why?” But be careful not to overburden the bereaved with your feelings. A simple comment like “I”ll certainly miss Jim”s quick smile” (or other endearing quality) will express how much you care. If an opportunity arises where expressing some of your feelings is appropriate, do so. But don”t try to make your feelings theirs.

Emotional stages
Understanding the various stages of grief is important when you want to offer comfort. The bereaved may express anger. “Why did he do this to me?” “Why did he let this happen?” are normal questions for some people. They don’t need answers – there are none. They just need to vent their feelings, their hurts, and their frustrations.

The most important thing you can do to listen. Give the bereaved a place where they can talk without being judged, where they don”t need to worry about your reactions to what they say. Reassure the bereaved that you are not tired of hearing their stories.

Many times the bereaved also experience feelings of guilt. “Why didn”t I notice the signs?” “Maybe if we had tried one more doctor.”

They cannot change the past, and neither can you. Again, do not try to solve the problem. During a discussion on the topic of guilt, June, a member of he group, suddenly said, “I wasn”t really a good wife; I never shared his enthusiasm for fishing. Maybe if I had just tried, could have been a better companion to him.” Ann, another grieving widow, simply reached over and squeezed June’s land, saying, “You were a good wife.” An expression of relief immediately crossed June’s face when she received that reassurance.

Feelings of helplessness and the inability to concentrate abound, and stress plays havoc with the bereaved”s short-term memory, sometimes causing them to wonder if they are losing their sanity. Rather than becoming distressed, watch for ways in which you can help. The bereaved need reassurance that they are normal. Be alert to specific projects that need to be done, and let them know that you will be glad to help. Follow their lead. It is their lives and their grief. You can provide support, but they need to make the decisions.

Sometimes we may think that the bereaved are isolating themselves. Our natural response is to encourage them to get out among other people. But allow them some space. They need to grieve alone, to sit and cry, to hold a picture, to read an old letter, or to breathe in the scent of their loved ones” clothing. If, however, you are worried that they are not taking care of themselves or eating properly, offer to drop by with something that you just took out of the oven, or invite them for a cup of tea.

Remain available
Remember special days with a card or a note, not just at Christmas but at other times as well. A simple note saying “Thinking of you” can be sent anytime. A card sent on an anniversary or birthday of either the person who died or the bereaved, and a remembrance on the anniversary of the death are very supportive gestures.

In my support group, we have discovered that often during the weeks following the first year anniversary of the death, a deep valley seems to open for the bereaved. Many bereaved think that a year is a logical length of time to grieve. After all, we have faced all the holidays and the special days that we shared with our loved one. But the grieving probably is not over yet, and that is disheartening. It is very comforting during this time to have someone who is there to listen and to have empathy when others have drifted away. Being available and listening, being patient and understanding that the grieving process may take a very long time – as simple as these may sound – are so important.

To “be there” does not mean that you must constantly be present in person. Instead, you can make it clear that you will be available when those who grieve need you. As time goes on, more of their friends and family may drift away and become involved in other things. Your availability is a wonderful blessing and support. An occasional phone call, “Hi, I was just thinking of you. How are you doing?” shows that you care.

You cannot replace the loss or take away the pain, but your support, your ability to listen, your presence, make the pain easier to bear. Without faith and support from people like you, life for those who are grieving would be unbearable.


This article first appeared in Reality (January 1998), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.